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Tuesday 21 June 2016

The strange case of the invisible geomorphologists and the fantastical quarries

 "Alternative views?  I see just consensus, where I'm looking.........." (Pic:  Sherman Law)
Everybody who reads this blog (and there are rather a lot of you) and who keeps an eye on the national press knows that there is a jolly dispute going on between certain archaeologists and geologists who think there are at least two Neolithic bluestone quarries in Pembrokeshire, and certain geomorphologists who have looked at the evidence and who see no quarries.  In December 2015 there were banner headlines and purple prose in some of the most popular national newspapers outlining the two sides of the argument and carrying quotes from Mike Parker Pearson and me, among others. The articles all referred to at least one of the two peer-reviewed papers published at the end of 2015 by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and myself. There have even been assorted mentions of the dispute in archaeological magazines.  These are the two articles published thus far:

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015). "Quaternary Events at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire." Quaternary Newsletter, October 2015 (No 137), pp 16-32.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes. 2015. OBSERVATIONS ON THE SUPPOSED “NEOLITHIC BLUESTONE QUARRY” AT CRAIG RHOSYFELIN, PEMBROKESHIRE". Archaeology in Wales 54, pp 139-148. (Publication 14th December 2015)

In the light of all this publicity it is therefore somewhat mystifying that the dispute appears to have escaped the attention of all but one of the authors of the 2015 Antiquity paper (see below). Only one, namely Rob Ixer, has acknowledged that there is a dispute going on, through his constructive contributions to this blog under assorted guises. And we thank him for that.  But six months after the publication of those two papers NOBODY has challenged any of the evidence we presented or our interpretations of it. No ripostes or refutations have been published, and no letters or alternative explanations of the features described have been submitted to the two journals involved, namely Quaternary Newsletter and Archaeology in Wales.  A thunderous silence prevails.

If there is no challenge to the points we have made, we have to assume that those points are unassailable. That is a reasonable assumption, since both papers were consulted on quite widely prior to publication, shown to other specialists, and then revised following careful peer review and editorial interventions. On that basis, the fact that they are completely ignored by most of the authors involved in the "Neolithic quarry" research is a cause for some concern. There should be a dialogue, but there is not. From where I stand, the tactic appears to be to pretend that there is a consensus on the reliability of the quarrying and human transport hypotheses, and that our two published papers are so far adrift of mainstream opinion that they should be ridiculed or retracted. Our friend Myris suggests that we should keep quiet and "move on". To put it mildly, that attitude is insulting to my fellow authors and myself and completely unacceptable in an academic context.

Now we come to the strange affair of the invisible geomorphologists. A little bird put the following comments onto the blog the other day:

"The MPP Antiquity paper and the BJ papers were sent as bundles to a range of geomorphologists, independant ice men in the first few months of this year and commented upon. No one wished to comment publically but there was no universal endorsement most wanted more data."
"..........your fixation on assigning tawdry malicious motives to those of us who disagree with you ............ is the reason why most people that were contacted with the bundle insisted that their names be kept quiet."

What does "no universal endorsement" mean?  As I have asked before, how many geomorphologists were consulted, and what were their names?  Were they glacial geomorphologists and glaciologists?  And if not, why not?  I'll hazard a guess that the group was very small, and that it included Dai Bowen, Chris Clark, Jim Scourse and Chris Green -- who have all featured on this blog before and who have all argued that the glacial transport of erratics from West Wales towards Salisbury Plain would have been "impossible."  Not one of them is a glaciologist.  We have our differences of opinion.  It would be natural enough for members of that small group to seek to maintain their previously published opinions, and for any other geomorphologists to say "I don't know the sites in question, so I cannot comment on whether one group in this debate has a better argument than the other."   It would also be natural enough to say "More evidence is needed."  But as we all know, the dig sites at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog have been filled in without any proper access being afforded to glacial geomorphologists.

We should remind the world that there are many more glaciologists and glacial geomorphologists (not to mention geologists) who have accepted in print that glacial transport of erratics from West Wales towards Wiltshire was perfectly possible during at least one glaciation.  I have named most of them in previous posts.

I have also named all the senior glacial geomorphologists who have been to the Rhosyfelin dig site in my company and accompanied by Prof MPP, including John Hiemstra, Danny McCarroll, Rick Shakesby, David Sugden, Simon Carr, David Evans and Martin Bates, and I have reported accurately that none of them has seen anything that makes them think of human quarrying.   Most of them are professors with vast field experience.  If any of them wants to contradict my reporting of our conversations, the opportunity is on this blog, here and now.  They have all interpreted the site as entirely natural, apart from the evidence of camp site occupation. That says it all....... so I would argue that the points made in our two papers represent a geomorphological consensus, until somebody comes along and argues otherwise.

Then I take issue with this:  "..........your fixation on assigning tawdry malicious motives to those of us who disagree with you ............ is the reason why most people that were contacted with the bundle insisted that their names be kept quiet."  What are the "tawdry malicious motives" referred to?  My only fixation is to try to get at the truth -- that is why this blog exists.   It is perfectly natural to seek to understand why certain people promote hypotheses which seem to me to be questionable, to say the least.  And the idea that senior academics are going to insist on anonymity, just because I might get upset if they say things on the record, is frankly preposterous.  Geomorphologists in my experience argue with each other all the time, and tend to call a spade a spade.   Why on earth would they worry about saying something I might disagree with?

So let's have names and opinions on the record.  It helps the archaeological cause not a jot if all the quarrying proponents can do is say "we have consulted various mysterious experts to check what is being said, and they have confidentially told us that there is no universal endorsement of the points made in those two peer-reviewed papers." 

There is a dispute, and there is no consensus.  It is absurd to pretend otherwise.

 The cause of all the bother:
Parker Pearson, M., Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, Kate Welham, Ben Chan, Kevan Edinborough, Derek Hamilton, Richard Macphail, Duncan Schlee, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Ellen Simmons and Martin Smith. 2015. Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge.   Antiquity, 89 (348) (Dec 2015), pp 1331-1352.


Michael said...

Hello again Brian,

You may have decided not to publish my comment OR the technology let me down!!

MPP's big reveal at Castlle Henllys is on the day after your lecture in September. There is also the added benefit of a BBQ before MPP speaks.

See you all there.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Your comment was unacceptable and was dumped. MPP's big reveal will probably reveal nothing at all -- so I hope he enjoys his BBQ.

TonyH said...

I fully expect MPP's alleged big reveal to be nothing but just a further tantalising tease. His motto seems to be, not "keep the customer satisfied", rather "keep the customer guessing". To further quote from Paul Simon,it's all a bit full of "incidents and accidents". It's about as seductive as 'X - Files' was to the gullible or impressionable.

Alex Gee said...

I've recently come to the realisation that Mike Parker Pearson is the reincarnation

of Trofim Lysenko in Archaeologist form!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Who's he?

TonyH said...

T.L. "Dazzled Stalin with false genetic theory" (Wiki)

MPP's favourite song is "Driftwood" by The Moody Blues", written by Justin Hayward.

"Time waits for no - one....
You thought you'd seen it all before
You really thought you knew
I shattered your illusions of fortune and fame....
No, don't leave me driftwood on the shore"

Lyrics are very metaphorically interesting, given what impression some of us may have about Mr Parker Pearson. He is a very avuncular, engaging fellow, though. Perhaps he just needs to slow down and reflect a bit more before making statements.